In recent years, we’ve seen lots of classic games get retooled, thanks to the PSN and Xbox Live Arcade. Pac-Man, Street Fighter 2, and Bionic Commando have all received high-profile remakes. Because of this, ports and remakes have somewhat become the most common content available, leaving excellent new content, such as the Live Arcade title Shadow Complex, unmentioned. This bold new IP draws a great deal from long-established titles but combines them with modern sensibilities that result in a genuinely enjoyable experience.
The game is set in the same universe as Orson Scott Card’s Empire. Without reading the book, the game does a decent job with telling its own story. After a very short prologue where you play as the vice president’s heavily-armed bodyguard (which also serves as a Metroid-style sneak peak of the later end of the game), the story focuses on Jason Fleming and his girlfriend Claire, out for a little spelunking. After a brief tutorial on traversing the cave, you fall under a duct and watch helplessly as your girlfriend is carried away into a hidden building by armed guards, not unlike those encountered in the prologue. Throughout the game, you are given a few cinematic cut scenes to flesh things out a bit, but a lot of the details can be obtained from overhearing guards engaging in conversation as you’re sneaking along.
If you played any previous Castlevania or Metroid games, then Shadow Complex will not provide any major changes to the formula. The game takes place in a large area that can be explored in a semi-specific pattern. Throughout the game, you pick up power ups that enhance the character’s exploration and combat abilities, many of them straight rips from other games such as grenades, a hookshot, a mask to breathe underwater, and a jetpack to double jump among other things. The game has many clever and unique weapons, which are coupled with restart-immune RPG elements. On top of the main story mode, the game also includes a challenge mode, providing tutorials for all the powerups in the game, along with 3 sets of specific scenarios, which grade your performance with a score and medal.
What Shadow Complex does better than its side-scrolling predecessors is offer up very open-ended gameplay elements. Many rooms have multiple methods of traversing, such as taking the high ground to gain a height advantage make headshots easier, or crawling through dents and avoiding combat altogether. That, along with a melee button, and interactive backgrounds (which range from simple exploding crates, to one instance where I could throw a grenade into an open pipe, only to have fire spewing out on my enemies at the other end of the room) adds to the variety of the combat, and makes the game better as a whole.
In terms of actual, objective quality, the graphics are the best yet on the Xbox Live Arcade. Keep in mind that it is competing with Bionic Commando: Rearmed and Trials HD. Part of this is thanks to the Unreal Engine and who the game was co-developed with Epic Games. The art direction is not particularly impressive, however, leaving the game looking a little generic. Despite an admirable amount of variety, it still looks a bit too gray and mechanical, and while it fits within the context of the story and settings, I would’ve liked to see the developers be a little more open to the color palette for the game.
Rounding out the presentation is a very well done voice track, which really brings life to the entire world and makes the experience much better. Sound effects are done well, from gunshots bouncing off metal to the dampening of noise when underground. Musically, the game comes with a symphonic score, which instead of playing all the time, plays only at key moments or after a major engagement, enhancing the moment. It’s a good touch, though a little generic as almost every action film or game uses symphonic music. With that said, it does fit with the rest of the theme of the game. It gives it the feel of a military action/thriller, which could be what the designers intended.
At 1200 Microsoft Points (around $15), Shadow Complex is one of the most fulfilling, robust packages the Xbox Live Arcade has to offer, which is a steal for a game that could have easily been released at retail. It sets a new landmark for graphics in a downloadable game, as well as pay homage to the great side scrolling games of past, while mixing things up with messing with the 3rd dimension. With a substantial story mode that provides room for experimentation and competition, challenge rooms, all of which are rounded out with good presentation, make this one of the best games of the year, downloadable and otherwise. If you ever wanted a spiritual successor to the Classic 2D Metroid and Castlevania series, or wanted to play a great looking game that doesn’t play like most console games have in several years, Shadow Complex proves to please both audiences at a great price.